Claudia Kinmonth is a woodworker and scholar who has focused her research and writing on the vernacular furnishings of rural Irish homes, primarily those belonging to people of little means. One ironic result is that much, though by no means all, of the work she studies is the kind that many a furniture maker would be embarrassed to have in his or her shop. Simple forms, cobbled together by people with no formal training, typically for their own use, these dressers, benches, tables and chairs often incorporate found and salvaged materials of the distinctly non-precious variety.
With a résumé that includes restoring antiques for dealers in London and training at such august institutions as the London College of Furniture and the Royal College of Art, in addition to employment as a researcher at the Victoria and Albert Museum, Claudia’s dedication to documenting the furnishings of impoverished people in rural Ireland makes her something of a maverick. So when Megan Fitzpatrick suggested I interview Claudia for this blog, I leapt at the chance.
Claudia began studying Irish vernacular furnishings in the 1980s, when she recognized the subject had been, in her words, totally neglected. “I knew it was interesting, because I’d spent a lot of my life coming [to Ireland] on holiday,” she says. Her father was Irish, and holidays meant visiting his parents and extended family who lived in County Cork. She turned the subject into her master’s thesis, “Irish Vernacular Furniture, 1840-1940: A Neglected Aspect of the History of Design,” on which she based her book “Irish Country Furniture 1700-1950,” which was published in 1993 by the Yale University Press. The book won several awards, among them the American Conference for Irish Studies Book Prize, the Katharine Briggs Award for Folklore and also the Royal College of Art’s Fleur Cowles Award for Excellence, which allowed her to return to Ireland for another year of field study.
Claudia was born in London. After completing high school and taking A-Level exams in geography, botany and art, she decided to take some time off from academic study to explore other interests. Early on, she took a job with an antiques dealer whose restorer taught her a lot about furniture restoration. She enjoyed the work and went on to work for another dealer, this time an Irishman. In part, she credits her English grandmother for her growing interest in art and decorative arts; in Claudia’s words, “her attention to really lovely things that she had in her house in England rubbed off on me.”
After making her living in furniture restoration for six years, she decided she wanted to learn more about furniture and applied to the London College of Furniture, where she did a two-year furniture conservation and restoration Higher National Diploma course. Both practical and academic, the training introduced her to the history of furniture, and beyond that, the history of design. It was, she says, “a fantastic course” with “very, very good craftsmanship being taught” by a multi-talented Scotsman named Leslie Charteris, and included such techniques as marquetry, as well as carving and gilding. As a student there, she made pieces that she would never otherwise have had an opportunity to make.
Next, she studied for an M.A. in Design History in a joint course through the Royal College of Art and Victoria & Albert Museum. Explaining what drew her to study vernacular furniture, she says that during her time at the Royal College of Art she “saw many good scholars revisiting and revising old subjects. For example, Charles Rennie Mackintosh – you could fill a room with books about that designer! I thought to myself, ‘there must be subjects that need to be addressed that haven’t been’ – I wanted to do original research in a field that needed research. Having family in Ireland, it was not that great a leap to spend time in Ireland doing field work.”
The field work involved “driving around looking for old houses that had not been modernized, then knocking on doors and asking people if they would let me look at their furniture. I soon learned that if I did not have a camera around my neck and a notebook in my hand, people wouldn’t let me in.”
Those who did open the door “were cautiously hospitable,” she says. Once she got to know them, they progressed from hospitable to helpful. Sometimes she knocked on eight doors in a day and only ended up with one that was useful to her research. She spent several months on the road, visiting every county. As it turns out, the homes of poor people are often better-preserved examples of how people used to live than those of people with money, because buying furniture and remodeling houses requires disposable income. Factor in the slow adoption of modern conveniences such as television (and later, computers with internet access to all sorts of products and services for sale) by more conservative, low-income residents of rural areas and you have a good recipe for turning up real gems of vernacular work. As Claudia puts it, “Sometimes we found the most amazing treasure troves in the most primitive houses. We looked for houses with elderly people who might never have changed anything.”
Seeking information about the furniture from the people who lived with it was the best way to learn, even if it only started her on a sometimes-complex path to discovering more. “Vernacular furniture rarely comes with any documentation,” she explains. “But if someone can say ‘we can remember the name of the maker,’ you can look up the parish records” or consult other types of records to come close to a date.
In 1987 her work led her to Seamus Kirwan, the now-late owner of a property known as Mayglass. Kirwan lived as his parents had, with no electricity or running water.
“His kitchen had an earthen floor and an open fire.” Claudia says. “He’d never married, so he had never had a catalyst for change, so he stayed the way he’d always been since he inherited the house from his parents.” She photographed all sorts of details. “He was full of stories about the things in his house!” she exclaims. After he passed away, the place was restored, with a re-thatched roof – “sanitized, in a way,” she adds, though the restoration has only enhanced the value of her documentation of what was there before: “Those photographs, for me, are unrepeatably marvelous and [get] better with age.”
She completed her master’s thesis and graduated in 1988. She went on to work as a researcher in the Department of Furniture and Woodwork at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. By this point she was well-versed in furniture-making techniques, as well as restoration, in contrast to the majority of her colleagues in that department at the V&A, who came from academic perspectives, devoid of hands-on workshop experience. Although the museum had a conservation department, she sums up the closeness between it and her own department by noting that it took nearly 20 minutes to walk from one to the other. “They really were worlds apart.” On an academic roll, she followed with a doctorate in Irish vernacular furniture, which she pursued remotely through the Teesside University while teaching academic and practical subjects as a Senior Research Fellow at Buckinghamshire College of Higher Education (now Buckinghamshire New University). In 2018 she was inducted as a member of the Royal Irish Academy for her publications on Irish art and country furniture, together with the exhibitions; hence the letters after her name, “MRIA.”
Claudia’s studies of vernacular furniture are informed by research in Irish poetry, travel journals, paintings and engravings of interiors, probate inventories, terminology, etymology and sometimes-vague links with grand aristocratic houses, where furniture makers would have observed “high fashion” that trickled down to work produced in, and for, farmhouses. A set of mahogany dining chairs made for a grand house often inspired copies in painted pine.
At this point, what interests her most is the frugality and ingenuity of her Irish ancestors. “They were terribly poor,” she says, “and had hardly any timber – Ireland is one of the most deforested nations in Europe. Since the 18th century, it has had hardly any trees. It was hard for poor people to get hold of enough wood, so they were ‘cleverly economical.’ They recycled a lot, as well. Now we can look back and say what they were doing then we now call environmental awareness and sustainability.” To them, however, making thorough use of every resource “was intuitive, out of necessity.”